John Carpenter’s 1988 They Live is set in a dystopian version of Los Angeles where aliens are covertly controlling every aspect of human life. It stars a professional wrestler (Roddy Piper, who passed away last year) and contains one of the most epic fight scenes ever. Naturally, it’s a cult classic. But did you know ...
1) Before they met, Carpenter was a Piper fan, but Piper had never heard of the director, even though his filmography at the time included such high-profile works as Halloween, Escape From New York, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China. Carpenter first encountered Piper at WrestleMania III in 1987, far from Hollywood at the Pontiac Silverdome in Michigan. According to a 2012 interview with the Nerdist:
I went as a fan; a wrestling fan. His manager at the time, David Wolfe, got ahold of me and said, “You wanna meet Roddy and think about this movie?” I said, well, sure. So I met him, and he was a really nice guy. We hit it off well, you know, I had been a wrestling fan since I was a kid, so we had much to talk about, and Roddy was trying to make a move out of wrestling, trying to get into acting. So I agreed to meet him and he was very nice, and we just went from there.
But Piper—who’d also been wrapped up in wrestling since he was a youth, albeit in a more hands-on way—actually had no idea who he was talking to:
I never heard of him, but that’s my bad, you know? ... So we sat down and, I’m trying not to be too facetious, but it was pretty close to this – “Could you pass me the butter? You want a roll? Yeah. Want to star in my next movie? Sure. Can I have some more champagne? Sure.” It wasn’t much more than that, really.
2) The greatest fight scene in movie history runs five minutes and 20 seconds long. It took three days to film, but a month and a half of rehearsing in the backyard behind Carpenter’s office in the San Fernando Valley. According to interviews on the They Live Blu-ray, Carpenter drew inspiration for the clash from a similarly memorable brawl in The Quiet Man, a 1952 John Ford film in which John Wayne plays a retired boxer.
According to Piper in a 2013 interview, however, there was a key difference between the fights in The Quiet Man and They Live:
[The Quiet Man] was a fight scene between two enemies. John wanted the longest fight scene in cinema history between two friends. That’s what made this one, not only more difficult, but it had to match the arc of the script. And where it does that is where I swung a two-by-four at him and missed and took out a window, and then realized I’d almost severely hurt my friend. And he gets mad and he busts a wine bottle and comes after me, but ends up cutting his own hand. And that makes me laugh and makes him madder and then he dives and we go over the car. So, those beats in it were very important because it showed, even during the fight, that these guys kind of cared for each other.
Also, obviously, when you have someone with Piper’s physical presence as your star, it’d be pretty dumb not to script in a punch-fest for the ages. Carpenter’s longtime stunt coordinator, Jeff Imada, notes that Carpenter only asked that “three specific wrestling moves” be incorporated into the choreography. (Imada doesn’t say which, but WWE fans can draw their own conclusions.)
Imada also says that Piper and co-star Keith David—who’d previously starred in Carpenter’s The Thing—worked very well together. Piper, with his pro wrestling background, learned to make his moves less theatrical, while David, who’d done some boxing and was a dancer, was coached to make his moves more theatrical. (On all the behind-the-scenes outtakes from filming the pivotal sequence, the two actors are grinning like they’re having the best time ever, which they obviously were.)
When asked if he ever considered making the iconic battle any shorter than it is, Carpenter has two words for the off-camera Blu-ray interviewer: “Fuck no!”
Like most of They Live, the fight was filmed on location in downtown Los Angeles. The actual location of the alley is Mercury Court between W 7th and W 6th Streets and Hill and Olive Streets; as the extensive photos at this movie-locations blog suggest, the spot today is just as grimy as it was in 1988. You’d never know its cinematic significance unless you were there on purpose.
Years later, of course, the fight was spoofed in a memorable South Park episode.
3) Stunt coordinator Imada played nearly every alien in the film. Though the production hired a male and a female actor to don the alien make-up, Carpenter preferred having Imada as his go-to “ghoul” instead.
4) The famous line “I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I’m all out of bubblegum” was Piper’s invention. Carpenter says he plucked it from a book of one-liners that Piper kept handy whenever he needed to do an interview hyping an upcoming wrestling match.
It was one of those – “Roddy, you’ve got bullets on you, you’ve got a shotgun, you’ve got sunglasses, you go into a bank, you’re not gonna rob it, say something … action!” I’m all out of bubblegum. Lunch! That was it. No more than that. I know, it’s crazy.
5) Carpenter improvised the bluesy They Live score himself with an assist from frequent collaborator Alan Howarth, whom he describes on the They Live Blu-ray as being invaluable for having “all the technology wired” and all the instruments ready to go at a moment’s notice. Howarth’s involvement meant that Carpenter could enter the studio and simply begin composing; the tempo of the score takes its cue from the pace of Piper’s walk through Los Angeles during the opening credits.
Howarth also used a slowed-down recording of Carpenter’s voice ordering “Sleep”—a subliminal audio message that’s heard by Piper’s character during his first few moments wearing the all-seeing sunglasses.
6) They Live was a relatively low-budget production (around $4 million, according to Carpenter’s Blu-ray commentary track), and some of the props were recycled. The sunglasses were re-used from Big Trouble in Little China, and a P.K.E. meter from Ghostbusters also makes an appearance:
7) The most expensive scene to film was the supermarket sequence, simply because it couldn’t be filmed on location, according to Carpenter on the Blu-ray. The store had to actually be built to facilitate all of those tiny, truth-revealing labels everywhere in every shot.
8) Many of the subliminal billboards were actually matte paintings, rather than filming a regular billboard followed by a shot of a black-and-white version with its “real,” hidden message. The first advertisement that Piper’s character, Nada, sees, is actually a painting in both views:
9) In Europe, the movie was released under the title Invasion Los Angeles.
10) “Frank Armitage,” credited as They Live’s screenwriter, is actually a Carpenter pseudonym. It’s a shout-out to H.P. Lovecraft creation Henry Armitage; Carpenter would later pay further tribute to the author with the film In the Mouth of Madness. (“Frank Armitage” is also the name of David’s character in the film.) Why the nom de screen? In 2012, the filmmaker explained to Entertainment Weekly:
It was a reaction to seeing my name all over these movies. I think the height of it was Christine. It was like, John Carpenter’s Christine, directed by John Carpenter, music by John Carpenter…what an egotist!
The idea for the script, famously, came from a mid-’80s comic-book version of a 1968 short story by Ray Nelson, “Eight O’Clock in the Morning.” The political elements—a reaction to the Reagan administration and then-popular yuppie culture—were Carpenter’s own additions. In 2013, he told the LA Times, “I just love that it was giving the finger to Reagan when nobody else would.”